If You’re Not Offended, You’re Not Paying Attention

From Four Nights Drunk

Steeleye Span

 

If You’re Not Offended, You’re Not Paying Attention

 

A print of a fight breaking out in the balcony of a theater with one man choking another man

Une discussion littéraire à la deuxième Galerie (A Literary Discussion in the Second Gallery)

Honoré Daumier

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:1864_0227_discussion_280.jpg

 

The illustration above is of a “literary debate.” Most of us try to discuss literature and books in a more subdued manner but there are those that are much more fervent in stating their opinions. When John Millington Synge’s play The Playboy of the Western World first opened it provoked riots, as did Sean O’Casey’s first plays. It is clear from the illustration and from these theater openings that some people take the arts much more seriously than others. There were a couple of articles recently, one on parody, “In Defense of Parody,” and one on its cousin sarcasm, “Who Killed Sarcasm.” The caption to the illustration is laced with sarcasm in one of its most ancient forms (it was very popular with Anglo-Saxon and Viking poets) litotes or understatement. Though not all sarcasm is parody by any means, much that is parody has a sarcastic edge to it. One of the better known parodies is of the poem “The Old Man’s Comforts and How He Gained Them” by Robert Southey:

You are old, Father William the young man cried,

The few locks which are left you are grey;

You are hale, Father William, a hearty old man,

Now tell me the reason, I pray.

In the days of my youth, Father William replied,

I remember’d that youth would fly fast,

And abused not my health and my vigour at first,

That I never might need them at last.

You are old, Father William, the young man cried,

And pleasures with youth pass away;

And yet you lament not the days that are gone,

Now tell me the reason, I pray.

In the days of my youth, Father William replied,

I remember’d that youth could not last;

I thought of the future, whatever I did,

That I never might grieve for the past.

You are old, Father William, the young man cried,

And life must be hastening away;

You are cheerful, and love to converse upon death,

Now tell me the reason, I pray.

I am cheerful, young man, Father William replied,

Let the cause thy attention engage;

In the days of my youth I remember’d my God!

And He hath not forgotten my age.

To most modern readers the poem seems a bit pretentious and “preachy.” Lewis Carroll obviously thought so when he wrote the following poem, “You Are Old Father William,” that first appeared in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland:

“You are old, father William,” the young man said,

“And your hair has become very white;

And yet you incessantly stand on your head —

Do you think, at your age, it is right?”

“In my youth,” father William replied to his son,

“I feared it would injure the brain;

But now that I’m perfectly sure I have none,

Why, I do it again and again.”

“You are old,” said the youth, “as I mentioned before,

And have grown most uncommonly fat;

Yet you turned a back-somersault in at the door —

Pray, what is the reason of that?”

“In my youth,” said the sage, as he shook his grey locks,

“I kept all my limbs very supple

By the use of this ointment — one shilling the box —

Allow me to sell you a couple.”

“You are old,” said the youth, “and your jaws are too weak

For anything tougher than suet;

Yet you finished the goose, with the bones and the beak —

Pray, how did you manage to do it?”

“In my youth,” said his father, “I took to the law,

And argued each case with my wife;

And the muscular strength, which it gave to my jaw,

Has lasted the rest of my life.”

“You are old,” said the youth; one would hardly suppose

That your eye was as steady as ever;

Yet you balanced an eel on the end of your nose —

What made you so awfully clever?”

“I have answered three questions, and that is enough,”

Said his father; “don’t give yourself airs!

Do you think I can listen all day to such stuff?

Be off, or I’ll kick you down stairs!”

Most who read the parody today are probably unaware of the poem that it parodies and see it as a satiric take on parental advice in general. It is probably true that most people prefer a joke to a lecture and that of the two the joke is the more likely to be remembered. This is certainly true of these two poems. Southey though was a popular target of parody and ridicule. He was, like William Wordsworth, a radical as a young man and a conservative later in life. As a young man his radical politics made him the object of ridicule as is seen in the cartoon below.

 

Illustration of a well dressed prosperous man talking to a poor working man

The Friend of Humanity and the Knife-Grinder

James Gillray

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Knife-Grinder-Gillray.jpeg

 

The poem that follows the cartoon is also a parody of another of Southey’s poems. Most parodies are not as successful as Lewis Carroll’s because they are often very topical in nature and when the event being ridiculed has faded from memory, the parody often fades with it. This is the case with the cartoon and the poem parody attached to it. In the 1960’s there was a parody of Shakespeare’s play Macbeth that received some acclaim. It was called Macbird and it poked fun at the Johnson administration and suggested that Johnson was involved with the Kennedy assassination, a popular conspiracy theory of the times. But like the cartoon, today the play is not well known, and it is likely that after my generation passes on it will be forgotten and only capture the interest of historians.

Those parodies that do survive often do so because, like Carroll’s poem, they do not depend on their sources for their success. Gulliver’s second voyage in Gulliver’s Travels is in part a parody of books written by retired mariners like Alexander Selkirk (the original “Robinson Crusoe”) and William Dampier (the pirate, or if your sympathies are with the British a privateer, who was responsible for later rescuing Selkirk). Selkirk was put ashore on a desolate island for complaining that the ship he was serving on was not seaworthy. The ship later sank and Selkirk was later rescued so his choice may have been a good one. Selkirk and Dampier because of their connection to the Robinson Crusoe story may continue to capture people’s imagination, but their books are forgotten and Swift’s story endures though most readers (unless they read the endnotes to the Penguin and Oxford World Classics edition of the story) know nothing of the works being parodied.

 

Illustration of wealthy people making merry, dancing and drinking

Merrymaking on the Regent’s Birtday, 1812

George Cruikshank

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/6/61/Regent%27s_brithday.jpg

 

As the illustrations above and below suggest parody, especially that which takes the form of cartoons, is often aimed at politicians and their behavior. The cartoons make use of a popular form of parody the caricature. In the cartoon below the caricature of Napoleon is easily recognized because he is an historical figure that is well known to this day. The caricature of the English Prime Minister, William Pitt, joining Napoleon to carve up the globe is probably less well known, even though he lent his name to the village of Pittsburgh. Also the picture of George IV is probably not well known today, though the behavior at the center of the cartoon still makes its appearance among the political leadership of most nations from time to time.

 

Illustration of a British officer (possibly Wellington) and Napoleon slicing the world into portions for their dessert plates

The Plumb-pudding in danger, or, State epicures taking un petit souper …

James Gillray

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Caricature_gillray_plumpudding.jpg

 

There was another article recently about art and politics, “The New Political Art.” The article points out that political art is often remembered for the wrong reasons and that it is often guilty of doing more harm than good. James Panero, the author of the article, points to Jacques-Louis David’s painting The Death of Marat. He argues no matter how well the painting itself was executed it led to the execution of many innocent people during the “Reign of Terror” that followed the Revolution the painting helped to inspire. But Panero goes on to talk about the work of the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei whose art has provoked the anger of the Chinese government by drawing attention to his own treatment and that of other dissidents by that government. Because art often makes its first appeal to the emotions of the viewer or reader its effect can be profound because emotions once aroused often influence behavior. The Chinese government may feel that the effect that Weiwei’s art has upon the citizens of China could, allowed to go unchecked, provoke a response not unlike the one provoked by David’s painting, though it is the government of China whose behavior most resembles that provoked by The Death of Marat. The voice of the artist can be a powerful voice and when that voice uses parody and sarcasm as its means of expression that voice can be even more formidable.

 

Painting of a man lying dead, perhaps in his bath, with pen, ink and parchment paper on which he was writing before him

The Death of Marat

Jacques-Louis David’s

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Death_of_Marat_by_David.jpg

 

Simon Schama in a recent essay, “Why I Write,” discussed the influence of one of the 20th centuries most revered essayists, who at times employed parody, satire, and sarcasm, George Orwell. Schama ends the essay by listing Orwell’s reasons for writing in the first place:

Orwell’s four motives for writing still seem to me the most honest account of why long-form non-fiction writers do what they do, with “sheer egoism” at the top; next, “aesthetic enthusiasm” – the pleasure principle or sheer relish of sonority (“pleasure in the impact of one sound on another”); third, the “historical impulse” (the “desire to see things as they are”), and, finally, “political purpose”: the urge to persuade, a communiqué from our convictions.

I like that Orwell begins with “sheer egotism.” To write essays on a regular basis one has to believe they have something important to say, even if, as is often the case, they do not. But the second reason, “aesthetic enthusiasm” is what I enjoy most in essays when I read them (in all writing really) the “pleasure in the impact of one sound on another.” As a reader this pleasure is one of the chief pleasures I get from reading. This is not to say I do not enjoy narratives (stories), whether fiction or non-fiction, but that I especially enjoy the orchestration of sound that many of my favorite writers achieve by where they choose to place their words in relationship to one another. This is often missing from satiric writing. Swift for example used a blunt language that was often zany, rude, and cacophonous; it is very funny but not very musical.

Christopher Beha in another article, The Marquise Went out at Five O’clock: On Making Sentences Do Something,” talks about another danger for the writer, the danger of paying too much attention to sentences and their construction. The worst writing is often writing that is musical as it is read, but that has little or nothing to say; writing that reveals a fascination with the sounds of words, but little concern with what they mean. Beha writes about how he wanted to write good sentences that could stand on their own, but sentences in stories and essays are “team players” and must serve the larger purpose of the piece and not their own self-interest. Parody intends to offend, if only the person whose work or character is being parodied. If it can be musical in its use of language, the Lewis Carroll poem uses the sounds and the rhythms of words very effectively, very musically, as does Orwell much of the time, so much the better. But parody is often most at home with an orchestra that resembles that of Spike Jones than that of the New York Philharmonic. Parody is at its core, I suppose, inelegant and wanting grace.

 

What Is a Snollygoster

Mark Forsyth

TED Talk

The video takes as its point of departure a very musical word, in a Gilbert and Sullivan sort of way, “snollygoster.” It is also a word that is “rudely” musical and suggests the set up to a joke. The sounds of its parts are sonorous, but when put together they create “rude expectations.” I don’t care how melodic the word sounds, I wouldn’t want to see my name used in the same sentence in which it is featured. The video is about political speech, freedom of the press, and the associations that words often have, especially in a political context. I was surprised to learn the title given to the executive in the American system of government, “president,” was resisted and finally only accepted as a temporary compromise that would be revisited and changed later. We are still waiting these many years later for a more impressive and a more permanent title to be conferred on the President of the United States.

I suppose what makes a thing beautiful is its use. If the beauty of the language used to convey a message overshadows that message, than perhaps that beauty is a false beauty and not worthy of notice. The point of parody is to illustrate shortcomings, and unless the shortcoming being illustrated is pomposity, a beauty that overshadows its object, that is too ornate and glamorous for its subject, is beside the point. But when pomposity is its object what better way to underscore it than by gilding in gold a rancid lily. Sometimes the most musical fanfare is a flatulent one.

 

Painting of people dancing at a 18th century wedding reception

The Dance / The Happy Marriage VI: The Country Dance (Used to illustrate to The Analysis of Beauty)

William Hogarth

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:William_Hogarth_035.jpg

Caricature and Content

Political Science
Randy Newman

Caricature and Content

Let Us Prey
Thomas Nast
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:1871_0923_vultures_200.jpg

There was a review in The Guardian, “Garry Trudeau: ‘Doonesbury quickly became a cause of trouble’”, of a retrospective collection of Gary Trudeau’s Doonesbury comic strip. In the book Trudeau comments on satire and its essential unfairness. He said, “Satire is unfair. It’s rude and uncivil. It lacks balance and proportion, and it obeys none of the normal rules of engagement. Satire picks a one-sided fight, and the more its intended target reacts, the more its practitioner gains the advantage. And as if that weren’t enough, this savage, unregulated sport is protected by the United States constitution. Cool, huh?” This captures satire in all its guises. It may not always be clear when something is intended as a satiric comment or just a general observation (is Glen Beck, for example, a satirist or a political analyst, and can the two coexist in one and the same person at one and the same time) but it is generally clear that someone is being ridiculed and belittled.

But whether it is the right at the mercy of Trudeau or the left at the mercy of Beck (I am not sure if Beck is a satirist or not I only know I respond to Beck much the same way the targets of Doonesbury respond to Trudeau) the targets of each feel they have been misrepresented or even “lied about.” But as Trudeau points out it is all protected by the Constitution and it is all very “cool.” As the Nast cartoon above suggests ridicule is a far more effective weapon for engaging the enemy than rational debate. The most ludicrous of positions can be made to sound reasonable, but even the most reasonable of positions struggles with its credibility when it is made to look ridiculous. Tweed and his cronies survived most assaults upon their power, they did not survive Nast and if we remember Tweed at all it is probably the Tweed of the Nast cartoons we remember and though people were being “nasty” long before Nast, he gave the word an additional twist.

Randy Newman’s song underscores this astringent quality of satire. The world is not treating us we deserve to be treated so we’ll show them, we’ll blow them off the face of the planet. Even if our analysis of our treatment is correct, the satiric response is hardly a measured one. As with most humor it has at its heart adults behaving childishly. Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel Red Mars begins with a conflict between two colonial factions on Mars, one that wants to create a homogeneous planet by only allowing people of a certain nationalistic view to settle there and the other that wants to create a diverse society with all the conflicts that diversity brings with it. Can satire exist in a world with a single point of view? Can a single point of view be long maintained or do humans by their very natures split into factions and groups incapable of remaining “homogenized”? When we get around to choosing up sides and staking out our satiric positions we are not likely to remain judicious in our portrayals of those with whom we disagree.

The Name of Dante Gabriel Rossetti is Heard for the First Time in the Western States of America
Max Beerbohm
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Max-oscar-1916.jpg

But is it the goal of satire to offend its targets while it amuses those that share its values? The caricatures above and below by Max Beerbohm and Andre Gill suggest that their intent was to give some offense, whether to gain a laugh at the subjects expense or to make a point it is up to the viewer to decide. In Beerbohm’s drawing is it Oscar Wilde or his western audience that is being satirized or is it perhaps both? The Gill cartoon suggests that Darwin and Littré are confronting the ignorance of the time, but they have also been dehumanized in the process. Is there a separate message in that? There are times perhaps when it is the satirist’s intention to offend everyone.

Charles Darwin and Émile Littré depicted as performing monkeys at a circus breaking through gullibility (credulité), superstitions, errors, and ignorance
Andre Gill
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Ch_Darwin-Emile_Littré_by_André_Gill.jpg

There was an article recently in The London Times, “Misreading Gulliver’s Travels,” about Jonathan Swift’s book Gulliver’s Travels and it suggests that those that read this book as a misanthropic attack on the whole human race miss the point. The article quotes from a letter Swift wrote to Alexander Pope where he says, “But principally I hate and detest that animal called man, although I heartily love John, Peter, Thomas, and so forth. This is the system upon which I have governed myself many years, but do not tell.” This suggests that it is not people that Swift despises but what people do when they get together and form a group. Individuals are lovable, groups less so. Those that read of Gulliver and his travels without keeping this thought in mind are bound to misread the book, though, it could be argued that those that misread in this way have not really been paying attention.

Ben Jonson wrote of his plays that they had two audiences, the “understanders,” who got the jokes, but were also illuminated by them and the “pretenders,” who laughed but learned nothing, who essentially missed the point. In his introduction to the play The Alchemist he wrote:

“If thou beest more, thou art an understander, and then I trust thee. If thou art one that takest up, and but a pretender, beware of what hands thou receivest thy commodity; for thou wert never more fair in the way to be cozened, than in this age, in poetry, especially in plays: wherein, now the concupiscence of dances and of antics so reigneth, as to run away from nature, and be afraid of her, is the only point of art that tickles the spectators. But how out of purpose, and place, do I name art? When the professors are grown so obstinate contemners of it, and presumers on their own naturals, as they are deriders of all diligence that way, and, by simple mocking at the terms, when they understand not the things, think to get off wittily with their ignorance.” (The Alchemist, Ben Jonson)

Jonson is attacking the critics of his day that would praise a play, or a poem, for the “business,” the humor and action but miss the artistry and the message. The understanders are changed by what they see on stage or read from the printed page, the pretenders are merely entertained. Jonson goes on to say, “I speak not this, out of a hope to do good to any man against his will,” suggesting that we all must play a role in our own reformation and even if Jonson wished to make his audience into better people, they cannot hitchhike on his good intentions. Jonathan Swift echoes Jonson’s view when he says, “Satire is a sort of glass, wherein the beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own; which is the chief reason for that kind of reception it meets in the world and that so very few are offended with it.” (Jonathan Swift, The Battle of the Books) Few are offended because they believe that others and not themselves are on the receiving end of the humor. Swift suggests, I think, that the best satire puts everyone, even the satirist, under the microscope and that we all have something to learn from it.

 

Patrick Chappatte 2010G On Editorial Cartooning
TED Talks

The film clip is about the influence of satire and cartooning on society. The understander will see a bit or her or himself in many of the cartoons Patrick Chappatte presents but there is also a troubling side to the cartoonist, in general, and the way in which some societies and some cultures respond to the cartoon. The power of the editorial cartoon is, as pointed out above by Gary Trudeau, that it is not always fair and that ridicule reduces anyone, no matter how innocent of the accusation being made, to something small and laughable. Few respond well to such a one sided attack and as in the case of the Danish cartoons ridiculing Islam, not all responses to the satire are docile or good natured.

Jonathan Swift attacked an attempt of the English government to flood Ireland with a currency that was not worth the metal it was stamped from. He made his attack from behind the mask of an anonymous Dublin draper who wrote a series of letters to the newspapers revealing the currency for what it was. The English government offered a substantial reward to anyone who would provide evidence that would lead to the draper’s arrest. The government believed Swift wrote the letters but they could not prove the charge. Unfortunately, for the British, no one was willing to collect the reward and identify Swift as the perpetrator of the letters.

Daniel Defoe also published a bit of satire attacking the religious attitudes of powerful people. He was convicted of libel and pilloried for his crime. At the time being put in the pillory where the convict’s head and hands were secured making movement impossible, could be a very harsh sentence. Passersby could throw most anything at the pilloried individual and it was not unusual to leave the pillory much the worse for wear. In Defoe’s case, though, the crowds sided with him and instead of sticks and stones they threw flowers and came to drink his health. Even when the satirist is legitimately in the wrong, which is questionable in Defoe’s case, it is unwise to respond too harshly, because public sympathy is often disinclined to side with the powerful and it often enjoys a bit of fun at their expense.

When satire is done well, everyone occupies a bit of the frame. We may not be powerful, we may not be guilty of the offenses that are being ridiculed, but as human beings we should be able to recognize that given the opportunity and the ability to take advantage of it we have in ourselves at least the propensity for acting as dubiously as those in the center of the frame. Though there may be a specific individual targeted in the humor, what gives the humor its force is that the behavior under attack is one to which all humans are susceptible and if we are wise we do not laugh at the object of the satire without laughing a bit at ourselves.

Zonker Harris
Gary Trudeau
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Zonkerharris.jpg

 

Of Wonders and Goodly Creatures and the Worlds Where They Are Found


The Planets, Op. 32, H 125 – 1. “Mars, The Bringer Of War”
Gustav Holst

Of Wonders and Goodly Creatures and the Worlds Where They Are Found

Cover Illustration for Stranger in a Strange Land

Stranger in a Strange Land Cover

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Stranger_in_a_Strange_Land_Cover.jpg

Science fiction is a literary genre that has always struggled to earn a bit of respect. I remember reading H. G. Wells and Jules Verne when in High School. I was asked by one of my English teachers why I read such awful stuff, or words to that effect suggesting that science fiction does not qualify as literature. When I suggested that 1984 and Brave New World (books that friends of mine were reading in honors English) were science fiction he said they were too well written to be science fiction. This definition is of course in orbit around itself but it represents a method often used to maintain a pejorative fiction about what is and is not art, literary or otherwise. Science fiction, though, has a long and “storied” history, especially if we, as many bookstores do, identify fantasy as a branch of science fiction.

The music is from Gustav Holst’s suite for orchestra The Planets. At the beginning of Robert Heinlein’s novel Stranger in a Strange Land Valentine Michael Smith comes to Earth from the planet Mars, where he, though an earthling, was raised by Martians. His representative insists that Mr. Smith be treated as a “head of state”, or the official representative of the Martian Government (read the novel if you want to find out why) and that the Martian national anthem be played when he enters the room. Because Mars does not have an official national anthem it is agreed that the “Mars” section of Holst’s The Planets be played in lieu of a national anthem. The music begins with the soft martial beat of a drum that grows louder as the music proceeds and is joined by the rest of the orchestra suggesting Mars’ affiliation with the god of war. However, Mr. Smith’s first name identifies him with Mars’ wife Venus, the goddess of love. A deliciously ironic touch to a novel about a character from a planet identified with war who argues for the peaceful resolution of conflict.

Cover Illutstration for The Martian Chronicles

This is the front book cover art for the book The Martian Chronicles by the author(s) Ray Bradbury. The book cover art copyright is believed to belong to the publisher, Doubleday or the cover artist.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:TheMartianChronicles(1stEd).jpg

Ray Bradbury’s book The Martian Chronicles takes a somewhat different view of Mars. The story has less to do with space travel and the colonization of planets than it does with issues of censorship, human kindness (and its absence), and the nature of difference. In one scene a young boy raised on the planet Mars asks his father to describe what Martians look like. The father takes the boy to a riverbank and tells the boy to look into the water. The boy looks into the water and sees his Martian reflection. The boy was after all born on Mars. There is, of course, a Martian culture and an indigenous people. They are never really seen by those from earth, but manifestations of their presence are seen. You will of course have to read the book to discover the actual content of their characters.

Forbidden Planet – The Short Version

The film Forbidden Planet is a science fiction retelling of Shakespeare’s play The Tempest. The clip above is a significantly abbreviated form of the film and omits all the Shakespearean plot elements, but if viewed in its entirety Morbius’ daughter Altaira bears a striking resemblance to Prospero’s daughter Miranda and many of the same issues arise in the film as are found in Shakespeare’s play. Vladimir Nabokov, one of the 20th century’s more venerated writers, believed that Shakespeare’s play would be classified as science fiction by anyone who took the working definition of science fiction seriously. This is especially true when fantasy fiction is considered a branch of science fiction. Caliban, for example, is not unlike the house elves in the Harry Potter stories and is certainly not treated much better. Prospero is a wizard not unlike Dumbledore in many ways, though with some darker aspects to his personality.

In this weekend’s New York Times Book Review section there is a review of a new book by Marjorie Garber Shakespeare and Modern Culture that addresses other modern elements of Shakespeare’s plays for the modern audience. It does not mention science fiction but points out that the aspect of Shakespeare that transcends time is how he captures the way people think and the consequences of that thinking (or perhaps it would be more accurate to say the way we think Shakespeare’s characters think like us and the consequences of that thinking for us). Each culture that reads Shakespeare can find themselves in the plays and interpret those plays in light of its own cultural experience and point of view. Shakespeare is working with the inner life of his characters that often resemble the inner lives of a more modern people. Science fiction, at its best, speculates on the consequences of our thinking for the future.

This sci-fi/fantasy aspect to story telling can be found in the most ancient story telling. Leaving aside myth and mythic elements in the epic literature there is still a wealth of literary examples of the fabulous in literature. Lucian in his “True History” has a sailing ship blown significantly off course by a powerful storm that sends the tiny ship to the moon. The Thousand and One Arabian Nights is full of fabulous creatures and events that would feel right at home in modern stories of fantasy and science fiction. For those that are interested this weekend’s book section of The Guardian has a review of a new translation of The Arabian Nights. One of my favorites comes from Orlando Furioso, an epic poem by the Italian Renaissance writer Ariosto, where one of Orlando’s friends goes to the moon on a flying horse to recover Orlando’s wits (the moon being the final resting place of lost wits). The wits are found on the moon in an appropriately labeled jar and returned to Orlando.

I think the first science fiction story is Gulliver’s third voyage, “The Voyage to Laputa” from Gulliver’s Travels. This observation has been made by others and dismissed by others as well. It is the earliest attempt I have encountered where the author of the story has tried to provide a scientific explanation for how a bit of technological magic works. The Floating Island of Laputa hovers over the surface of the earth. Swift explains the island’s ability to hover, rise, and descend as the result of magnetic forces that have been harnessed by the island’s inhabitants. The plausibility of this explanation could be called into question by scientists, especially scientists today who have, perhaps, a deeper understanding of how magnets work, but for the writer of fiction it is only necessary to produce an explanation with a large enough grain of verisimilitude to give an aura of believability. It is certainly a more scientifically sound explanation than H. G. Wells’ Cavorite, an early relative of Flubber.

Painting of the Tower of Babel
The Tower of Babel
Pieter Brueghel the Elder
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Brueghel-tower-of-babel.jpg

When in college I took a course through the physics department in science fiction. It was a fascinating course, I thought, and one in which I learned more about physics than from the physics course I was required to take as part of my basic studies requirement. We were given the opportunity to either take an exam or to write a science fiction story. Because I did not want to take a test I wrote a story. There was not much science in it and I don’t believe it received a very good grade but it took as its premise that mathematics constituted a kind of universal language, that equations could be understood by mathematicians in any country no matter what language they spoke at home.

In the story scientists gathered to watch the launch of a spacecraft designed by scientists the world over using the common language of mathematics and universally understood symbols that could be employed on the blueprints and designs of the rocket. It was a parody of sorts of the story of “The Tower of Babel” from the “Old Testament” of The Bible. At the end of the story the space ship is destroyed by a cataclysmic event of divine origins.

Though the story itself was contrived and did little to demonstrate a knowledge of physics it illustrates a role played by science fiction. Both the novel by Heinlein and the novel by Bradbury suggest how science fiction can comment on the possibilities and dangers of the human psyche and of human aspirations. Stranger in a Strange Land, for example, was published at the time of the Vietnam War and was seen, as was another science fiction novel of the time Slaughterhouse Five, to be an attack on that war and the attitudes that set that war in motion. It also addresses other issues of political and religious coercion.

Swift’s satire was an attack on the science of his day. Part of his criticism is aimed at the uselessness of many of the scientific pursuits of his day and is seen by many as the weakest link in the satiric chain. He attacks scientific inquiry where it seems to him to be pointless, serving no practical end. He describes machines that write essays and speculations on the ambiguity of language and how these ambiguities might be resolved. The results of these experiments are silly and justly ridiculed, though others might see these speculations as not being entirely without merit.

Other scientists try to extract sunbeams from cucumbers and food from human excrement. These experiments are shown to be equally ridiculous, but in a time that struggles with renewable sources of energy, there might be some value to figuring out how to get the sunbeams, the solar energy, out of cucumbers and other plants. Swift does not seem to be able to see that what often seems as pointless or useless experimentation does produce very useful products that benefit all mankind. I am typing this on a laptop computer. The technology that produced the laptop computer was initially created to serve the needs of the space program, a program that some people still question the value of funding. Following a question or an idea, though it may not seem to offer much of value initially can lead to other things that may have great worth. That is one of the reasons why it is important to question and to explore.

There is another target of Swift’s satire of science, though, that does resonate to this day and that is the ability of scientists to develop tools and technologies that are used to restrict individual liberties and to intimidate and oppress a people. Some of the tools of this oppression that Swift depicts in the novel are drawn for their comic effect and not intended to be taken very seriously, though the mindset that would devise these technologies is truly troubling and it is this mindset that is the object of the satire. Swift is trying to encourage his readers to consider where things are taking us, whether those things are new technologies or the attitudes we have towards those we find disagreeable.

Science fiction on one hand wants to help us imagine a future and the road that must be traveled to achieve that future. Though, when literature of any kind tries to imagine what the future will look like it often gets as much wrong as it gets right. The communications devices in the film clip, for example, look the way people in the 1950’s thought they would look in the 22nd century, but early in the 21st century we can see that they are already out of date.

On the other hand, science fiction can show us how our social institutions may evolve and how troubling these institutions could become if certain forces within those institutions were allowed to go unchecked. As Swift suggests some of the tools of oppression that might be developed have beneficial applications. It is the benefits of science that are often used to sell the science. It is the unintended consequences that often go ignored. The same technology that lets me talk to my brother in California could be used by a malicious government to listen to those conversations. Of course that same technology can help prevent criminal acts that could result in the deaths of many innocent people.

It may not be possible to escape the technologies we have created, nor may it be desirable. It is important, though, to consider where we are going and the tools and technologies that will take us there. It is perhaps unwise to try to retreat to a pre-technological age, but it is perhaps equally unwise to follow where the technology leads without taking the time to find out where we are going.

It’s a Long and Dusty Road

“Never Been to Spain”
Hoyt Axton

It’s a Long and Dusty Road

Mexican Travel Poster

Tasco Travel Poster
Anonymous
http://www.lapl.org/virgal/travel/travel-4.html

Hoyt Axton in his song “Never Been to Spain” is a kind of imaginary traveler. He has never been to a number of places but appreciates their culture and people none the less. Music, for Axton, is often the key that unlocks the cultural door. Whether it is the music of Spain or the Beatles it often touches us emotionally and evokes in us an interest in the culture it claims to represent. The music of the Middle East is very different from that of Europe, as the music of most European countries is different from that of their European neighbors. Often the foreign, exotic sounds of the music creates a desire to see the culture that produced it, even when we don’t understand the words being sung or understand the purpose of the music or what inspired it.

I went to high school in the Los Angeles Harbor area, a little town called San Pedro. Richard Henry Dana in his book Two Years Before the Mast speaks of San Pedro as a dreary and desolate place. Of course he visited before the building of the breakwater that enclosed the harbor and made it a more satisfactory anchorage. From our back yard we could see the harbor and the comings and goings of the ships. I remember one year there was a longshoremen’s strike and the ships anchored outside the breakwater and there were ships anchored out to sea for almost as far as the eye could see (or so I remember it).

But like Hoyt Axton we would listen to music and while in high school a popular band was The Tijuana Brass. They were a group of guys playing trumpets who, to us, looked like Italians playing Mexican music. Tunes like “The Tijuana Taxi” and “The Lonely Bull” evoked Mexico to us and gave us a desire to visit and experience the culture more fully, a much easier place to visit than Spain, being only about a hundred miles down the coast. When we finally went to Mexico it became clear that the music painted a more romantic picture than the reality, though our visits to Rosarita Beach and Ensenada were always great fun.

My favorite story about a book involving travel concerns Bram Stoker and his book Dracula (the story is told in the first Annotated Dracula). The opening chapters of the book take place in the Transylvanian mountains and other colorful locations in Eastern Europe. In the novel Stoker has his character, Jonathan Harker, describe the countryside through which he travels as well as the local customs he encounters, the food he eats, and the wine he drinks.

After the book was published Stoker was asked to speak to various organizations about his travels because it was assumed he could not have written so compelling about these places if he had not been there. In fact Stoker never left England. He did all of his research for the novel in London’s fine libraries. I like this story because it suggests the possibility of not just knowing well a culture and people we have never visited, but of appreciating that culture and people.

In this weeks Sunday New York Times (12-07) book review section there is an article devoted to books on the automobile industry that made America a nation in a sense defined by its mobility and the ability to travel. Growing up our television encouraged us to “see the USA in a Chevrolet” and to travel America first by using the vast highway system to explore every corner between our eastern and western beaches. There is another article on travel books. These books are about kayaking the South China Sea and motorcycling through the Congo and traveling the United States in a Mercedes Benz that runs on used cooking oil. These books all remind us of the vastness of the world, the diversity of its cultures and the yearning for adventure that abides in the hearts of most, even those who at heart are like hobbits who, as a people, dislike traveling too far from their front door.

Painting of Sir John Mandeville

Full-page portrait of Sir John Mandeville.
Source “Travels” by John Mandeville (created 1459). Via NYPL Digital Gallery
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:JohnMandeville.jpg

Sir John Mandeville is one of my favorite travelers. There are those who question whether or not he traveled anywhere. Many of the stories that he tells recount popular beliefs of mythological beasts that were believed to live in far away places. He talks of people with only one leg that operates something like a pogo stick and of people without heads whose faces are in the middle of their chests. (Some of these creatures make an appearance in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader one of C. S. Lewis’s Narnia books.) Today we are fairly certain such creatures do not exist, so at best Sir John was having a bit of fun at the expense of the untraveled medieval reader.

Another medieval world traveler was Marco Polo. He did indeed go to China and became a civil servant in the court of Kublai Khan. When he returned to Venice he ended up in jail for some reason and started telling his travel stories to a fellow prisoner who told him he should write a book, which Marco eventually did (his fellow prisoner wrote it down). His book talks of a world few had seen and his accounts of his travels through China still captivate readers to this day. Though there are elements that are bit far fetched they are usually stories Marco heard from others and is merely reporting.

Picture of Marco Polo traveling

Marco_Polo_traveling.JPG‎ (488 × 364 pixels, file size: 53 KB, MIME type: image/jpeg)
Marco Polo travelling, Miniature from the Book “The Travels of Marco Polo” (“Il milione”), originally published during Polos lifetime(September 15, 1254 – January 8, 1324), but frequently reprinted and translated .

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Marco_Polo_traveling.JPG

By a serendipitous twist of fate it works out every year that we study Gulliver’s Travels in British Literature at the same time we are studying The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in American Literature. Both of these books involve travel one to places that have never existed and one to a place that is rich with historical and cultural significance. The point of these stories, though, is not to take us to exotic places and give us a sampling of their flavors but to make a point about how lives were lived at home. In both cases the travelogue aspects of the book are not the point. Both books effectively skewer the cultures in which their author’s lived.

Sherlock, Jr.
Buster Keaton, 1924
http://www.archive.org/details/SherlockJr

Buster Keaton captures another side of motorized mobility. His is a somewhat carefree journey until he realizes that no one is piloting the motorcycle. Keaton was a master of the visual gag and slapstick comedy. His best films make use of machines, especially machines in motion, like trains, steamboats, and motorcycles. In his films he is often on a journey and the vehicles on which he travels are conspiring against him. One advantage to reading of the journeys others take, even journeys to non-existent places, is that the reader can share in many of the experiences of the traveler while assuming few of the risks.

To a certain extent as travelers we are like Keaton on his motorcycle without a driver. Like Keaton before he realizes he is alone we feel relatively safe and that everything is under control when in fact we are strangers in a strange land. People often say the French do not treat tourists, especially American tourists, very well. My experience was very different, with few exceptions. America is a nation of immigrants and people from different lands are always coming here. As a result we are used to thinking of people from other countries as foreigners. Many bring this attitude with them when they travel to other countries. Perhaps we are a bit like Jim in Huckleberry Finn who finds it odd that the French do not speak English. If all cows moo and all dogs bark than it stands to reason that all men share a common language as well, which, of course, is English.

Part of the adventure of travel comes from realizing we are the foreigners. Gulliver always realizes this and brings a zest and enthusiasm to his discovery of each new land where circumstance brings him. He is not at all like the traveler that views each new land as an extension of his homeland. In fact his experiences in each place he visits increases his feelings of alienation from the culture and people of his own country. These feelings of alienation eventually drive Gulliver mad. There is always this danger for the traveler perhaps, of feeling so far from home that she or he forgets what home is and what it is about home that is, or at least should be, warm and inviting and a shelter from the storms of life.